Living in trouble

How can we be fair if we don't understand the role of luck?

I've never been a poker player, but I recently started using a computer game that frequently deals me new playing pieces on a supposedly random basis. Playing that game has made me very sensitive to the fact that, no matter my skill level, I can't go very far in the game unless the right pieces appear at the right time. 

In life, persistence will pay off provided that bad luck doesn't disable or derail us. Unfortunately it often does, and then we are often further punished by society. If we are committed to being fair to those around us, then we have to always be conscious of the random events in life that bat people around. 

Vox: The radical moral implications of luck in human life, 2019-Mar-5 by David Roberts

These recent controversies reminded me of the fuss around a book that came out a few years ago: Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, by economist Robert Frank. (Vox’s Sean Illing interviewed Frank last year.) It argued that luck plays a large role in every human success and failure, which ought to be a rather banal and uncontroversial point, but the reaction of many commentators was gobsmacked outrage. On Fox Business, Stuart Varney sputtered at Frank: “Do you know how insulting that was, when I read that?”

It’s not difficult to see why many people take offense when reminded of their luck, especially those who have received the most. Allowing for luck can dent our self-conception. It can diminish our sense of control. It opens up all kinds of uncomfortable questions about obligations to other, less fortunate people.

Nonetheless, this is a battle that cannot be bypassed. There can be no ceasefire. Individually, coming to terms with luck is the secular equivalent of religious awakening, the first step in building any coherent universalist moral perspective. Socially, acknowledging the role of luck lays a moral foundation for humane economic, housing, and carceral [incarceration] policy.

Building a more compassionate society means reminding ourselves of luck, and of the gratitude and obligations it entails, against inevitable resistance.

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The right way to fund good journalism... be an innovator

Good citizens want good journalism, and although no one of us may be able to pay the whole salary for a journalist, every community should be thinking about what they need to know, and how they're going to be sure that someone is around to find out for them. 

Also, publications should be looking for as many was to get funded as they can think up. Be innovators!

The Outline: Journalism should be free, 2019-Feb-06 by Mari Cohen and Christian Belanger

Any system that prioritizes free journalism will likely end up achieving that end through a patchwork set of measures. (There’s also, for instance, the possibility of setting up city-operated newspapers.) And it may be true that holding fast to the principle of journalism as a public good is incompatible with the demands of the market. But instead of capitulating to the demands of capital, we should be thinking about how our social and political worlds prioritize profiteering above all else, and how we might move beyond that.

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Reasons to believe

While reading a biography of H.L. Mencken, I ran across Mencken's analysis of how 'facts' became so important to civilization. He points out that after Darwin's The Origin of Species was published, facts began to outpace tradition as a test of truth. 

I believe we've now come to another turning point in civilization where facts have to compete with another test of truth. More and more people want to maintain coherent views based on their values. If a fact is inconsistent with their values, they deny it. More importantly, they ignore it. 

It remains to be seen if this approach to life is sustainable. It certainly seems to be doing pretty well right now. 

H.L. Mencken, George Bernard Shaw: His Plays: Introduction, 1905

...before Darwin gave the world “The Origin of Species,” the fight against orthodoxy, custom, and authority was necessarily a losing one. On the side of the defense were ignorance, antiquity, piety, organization and respectability—twelve-inch, wire-wound, rapid-fire guns, all of them. In the hands of the scattered, half-hearted, unorganized, attacking parties there were but two weapons—the blowpipe of impious doubt and the bludgeon of sacrilege. Neither, unsupported, was very effective. Voltaire, who tried both, scared the defenders a bit, and for a while there was a great pother and scurrying about, but when the smoke cleared away, the walls were just as strong as before and the drawbridge was still up. One had to believe or be damned. There was no compromise and no middle ground.

And so, when Darwin bobbed up, armed with a new-fangled dynamite gun, that hurled shells charged with a new shrapnel—facts—the defenders laughed at the novel weapon and looked forward to slaying its bearer…. And then of a sudden there was a deafening roar and a blinding flash—and down went the walls. Ramparts of authority that had resisted doubts fell like hedge-rows before facts, and there began an intellectual reign of terror that swept like a whirlwind through Europe, America, Asia, Africa and Oceania. For six thousand years it had been necessary, in defending a doctrine, to show only that it was respectable or sacred. Since 1859, it has been needful to prove its truth.”

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Why the U.S. should stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia. Now. (Ethics for marketers)

I had this feeling but I couldn't explain it. Fortunately, Scott Galloway can. 

No Mercy/No Malice: Brand & Bone Saws, 2018-Oct-19 by Scott Galloway

The Founding Fathers were, at their core, incredible marketers who knew the Constitution needed to reach beyond its grasp and paint the promise of America. The strongest brand in the world, delivering loyalty and irrational returns on investment — that’s the US. When you are 5% of the world’s population but command a quarter of its resources, then we, the US, are the Jedi master of brand. Core to our brand code is independence, equality, rule of law, liberty, risk-taking, generosity, work, and moral leadership.... 

The US is a 20 trillion dollar economy. To erode our brand code is to weaken the margins and loyalty of every product and service we produce. Billions of people buy our products and services based on our discipline to sacrifice short-term profits in support of our code. Eroding our brand in exchange for $15–$110B in arms sales (a value of 0.1%–0.6% of our GDP) is not only the wrong thing to do, but the stupid thing to do.

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Unexpected signs of sanity in the universe: staff of Know Your Meme on The Verge

Lately, I've been reading many things written by technologists who think the internet has gone off the rails, and maybe (they think out loud), we should do something about it. Most notably, Dan Hon's No one's coming. It's up to us

This article published on The Verge gave me hope because I didn't expect the staff of KnowYourMeme.com to care. They haven't found a solution but they are working on it, realizing that it's going to be a matter of each of us taking responsibility for the unintended consequences of what we do

The assumption that something that’s popular is good, and that something with a lot of views is valuable, has been programmed into us by 100 years of mass media, [Kenyatta Cheese, co-founder of Know Your Meme] argues. And it’s something we need to unlearn “if we’re going to understand memes and if we’re going to understand influence.”

'Unlearning.' Yes, that's what we need. 

The Verge article focuses on the site's editor-in-chief, Brad Kim, but includes interviews with several staff members and founders. I highly recommend reading the whole thing

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Get better job feedback by asking "What can I do to contribute more?"

Several years ago I tried to get a co-worker to share some feedback about my performance, but he avoided it like the plague. I now realize that I made the whole process too risky for him. To find out how others see us, we need to ask simple, frequent questions that allow them to help us. "Why" and "how" can be too confusing and emotionally charged. "What" questions are easier to answer and more likely to produce information we can use. 

HBR: What Self-Awareness Really Is (and How to Cultivate It), 2018-Jan-4 by Tasha Eurich

My research team scoured hundreds of pages of interview transcripts with highly self-aware people to see if they approached introspection differently. Indeed, there was a clear pattern: Although the word “why” appeared fewer than 150 times, the word “what” appeared more than 1,000 times.

Therefore, to increase productive self-insight and decrease unproductive rumination, we should ask what, not why. “What” questions help us stay objective, future-focused, and empowered to act on our new insights.

For example, consider Jose, an entertainment industry veteran we interviewed, who hated his job. Where many would have gotten stuck thinking “Why do I feel so terrible?,” he asked, “What are the situations that make me feel terrible, and what do they have in common?” He realized that he’d never be happy in that career, and it gave him the courage to pursue a new and far more fulfilling one in wealth management.

Similarly, Robin, a customer service leader who was new to her job, needed to understand a piece of negative feedback she’d gotten from an employee. Instead of asking “Why did you say this about me?,” Robin inquired, “What are the steps I need to take in the future to do a better job?” This helped them move to solutions rather than focusing on the unproductive patterns of the past.

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Learning about productivity from Cory Doctorow

I completely understand Cory's problems in managing multiple projects. I don't agree about the limits he finds, though. I'm always on the lookout for new projects and friends that offer a fresh angle on stuff I'm already doing, like growing a new root. 

I also find Facebook very problematic but I have to keep looking over the wall because so many of my friends are sharing there. I wonder how to get more people to at least copy and keep some of their writing and sharing separate from Facebook and Instagram. 

Locus Magazine: How to Do Everything (Lifehacking Considered Harmful), 2017-Nov-6 by Cory Doctorow 

...after getting rid of the empty calories in my activity diet, I had to start making hard choices.

In retrospect, I observe that the biggest predictor of whether an activity surviving winnowing is whether it paid off in two or more of the aspects of my life and career. If something made me a better blogger – but not a bet­ter novelist and activist – it went. The more parts of my life were implicated in an activity, the more likely I was to keep the activity in my daily round.

Some of these choices were tough. I have all but given up on re-reading books... 

Some social media tools – like Facebook – make for fun (if problematic) socializing, and all social media pays some dividend to authors who are hoping to sell books and activists who are hoping to win support, but Twitter also teaches me to be a better writer by making me think about brevity and sentence structure in very rigorous ways (and from an activist perspective, Twitter is a better choice because it, unlike Facebook, doesn’t want the web to die and be replaced by its walled garden) – so Twitter is in, and Facebook is out....

...the only activities left in my day serve double- and triple-duty. There is virtually no moment in my working day that can cleanly be billed to only one ledger.

The corollary of this is that it gets much, much harder to winnow out activities over time. Anything I remove from the Jenga stack of my day disturbs the whole tower.

And that means that undertaking new things, speculative things that have no proven value to any of the domains where I work (let alone all of them) has gotten progressively harder, even as I’ve grown more productive. Optimization is a form of calcification. 

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